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The Myth of ‘Dying’ Cultures

British and European scholarly and popular texts of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth represented indigenous African, American, Asian, and Oceanic cultures as not only without a past, but without a future. The new disciplines of Anthropology and Ethnography, catalysed by objects arriving from Empire territories, saw such cultures as outpaced by progress, vanishing traces of pre-civilization, and windows onto earlier stages of evolution. Dying culture narratives reflected catastrophic real collapses of many indigenous populations due to imperial invasion, occupation, and disease, and the destruction of settlements and social and cultural practices that resulted. The story supported colonial assimilation policies which falsely characterized local cultures as not transitioning but fading, while they dispersed and suppressed indigenous communities in favour of incoming settlers and promoted religious conversion. ‘Tattooing is going out of fashion’, wrote a British army doctor, Arthur Thomson in The Story of New Zealand in 1859, ‘partly from the influence of the

Tony Phillips (born 1952), History of the Benin Bronzes IX, The Lecture, 1984, etching, 21.4 x 26.5 cm

Figure 3.4 Tony Phillips (born 1952), History of the Benin Bronzes IX, The Lecture, 1984, etching, 21.4 x 26.5 cm.

Source: © Tony Phillips. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.

missionaries . . . but chiefly from the example of the settler’ (Thomson 1859, 76-78). In fact, such suppressed cultural practices had, and continued to have, a changing history. Thomson, himself, mentioned Maori ‘tattoos’, moko body designs, substituting for written signatures on documents, for example, and more recently, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku’s history of the practice has shown that Maori people adapted imported metal tools to the moko practice, circulated designs through photographs, and evolve to the present day (Awekotuku 2006, 129-130).

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dying culture myth encouraged explorers, soldiers, traders, missionaries, settlers, and, latterly, tourists to collect artefacts. Objects flooded from the Empire to Britain, many fetching up in museums. In 1910, Ormonde Dalton and Thomas Joyce wrote a Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections at the British Museum. It asserted the need to study artefacts made by communities they considered to be remnants of ‘savage and barbarous peoples’ in order to understand their Darwinian model of the evolution of ‘Man’

(Dalton and Joyce 1910, 1). To this end, Dalton and Joyce illustrated the Benin bronzes and other sculptures in a chapter devoted to racial origins in Africa (Dalton and Joyce 1910, 238). It was common at the time to show artefacts from different cultures together in order to dramatize racist ideas of the universality of Darwinian theory and the shared status of the objects as evidence of earlier evolutionary stages. Accordingly, the ‘Introduction’ illustrated a ‘pipe’ from the Congo alongside an ‘ornament’ from Borneo and a ‘model of a totem pole’ from west coast Canada, side by side as matching exemplars of the origins of decorative embellishment created in the service of ‘sexual selection’ (see Figure 3.5) (Dalton and Joyce 1910,21-23). Again, no individual maker is named and the objects are not dated because they represent cultures that the authors and wider society considered to be unchanged over time and generations.

Dalton and Joyce described these cultures as producing ‘no written records and unknown to history’ (Dalton and Joyce 1910, 10) and do not acknowledge the historical narratives represented by the iconography of the bronzes, pole, or other objects. In fact, the so-called totem poles were not totems, but family stories, weaving crests, people, and beasts into dynastic mythologies which traced historical continuity and change. The ‘Model of a totem pole’ illustrated in the ‘Introduction’ tells a tale about the relationship between a woman and her son-in-law, for instance. Furthermore, far from a dying culture, many of the artefacts in the book were modern. ‘Model of a totem pole’ was part of a Model House (c. 1897) carved by the Haida artist John Gwaytihl, less than 20 years before in Haida Gwai, on the west coast of Canada (then known by Europeans as the Queen Charlotte Islands after the ship of their European discoverer) (see Figure 3.6). The Haida nation was a maritime society and one of the earliest global merchants, selling sea otter pelts as far as Europe, Russia, and China until otter numbers could no longer sustain the trade. By the late nineteenth century, British and European contact and settlement, especially diseases such as smallpox, had decimated 95 per cent of Haida population, reducing it to less than a thousand individuals. Out of this disruption to life and lifestyle came new forms of art and commerce including handmade objects. John Gwaytihl was one of several well-known Haida artists carving artefacts in wood, stone, and bone for this new global market (surveyed in Wright 2001). Many Haida converted to Christianity and an Anglican Missionary, the Rev. John Henry Keen, sent a photograph of Gwaytihl standing beside a model house to the British Museum. They requested it for their collection and Keen commissioned Gwaytihl to create another (Wright 1998, 42-57). He based it on a handsome mid-nineteenth-century building, Bear House (c. 1850), in the abandoned nearby village of Kayang. Keen delivered the model in 1898 along with other objects, natural specimens, and photographs. He had learned Haida to translate the Bible and was able to furnish the



Ormonde Dalton and Thomas Joyce, Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1910

Figure 3.5 Ormonde Dalton and Thomas Joyce, Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1910.

John Gwaytihl (c. 1820-1912), Model House, c. 1898, painted wood, 42 x 41 x 85 cm

Figure 3.6 John Gwaytihl (c. 1820-1912), Model House, c. 1898, painted wood, 42 x 41 x 85 cm.

Source: © Trustees of the British Museum.

museum with an explanation of Gwaytihl’s imagery (Keen 1897; Joyce 1903, 90-95). The original Bear House pole (c. 1851) was also accessioned by the museum in 1903.

Gwaytihl’s carved house was a modern product of a local and international history of dramatic social and economic change that included imperial domination, epidemic, global transport, photography, and the spread of Christianity. As Aldona Jonaitis wrote in 1999, most totem poles were post-contact productions (Jonaitis 1999, 106-107). Traded metal tools and paints facilitated their manufacture, encouraging taller, brighter poles such as that at Bear House. They became more conspicuous when surviving Haida people relocated from their decimated settlements to two towns, Skidegare and Masset, where Gwaytihl worked. Jonaitis notes that texts and tours aimed at travellers encouraged a mystique around ‘ruined’ settlements and described the poles as leftovers of an ancient culture. By the end of the century, poles and models were made for tourists, collectors, institutions, and world fairs. Other Haida artists carved pipes and relief sculptures in a new, recently discovered, stone called argillite, often incorporating modern imagery of Europeans and steamships (McCormick 2014). They were traded in huge numbers but considered less authentic than the apparently traditional totem pole designs which could be more easily misunderstood as talismans of a so-called ‘primitive’ culture (Phillips 1999,13). As Ruth Phillips observed in 1998, binary ‘views of Haida art as authentically “timeless” or in-authentically modern have marginalised the creativity of Haida artists and denied the Haida a changing history or an active role in it’. In so doing, she adds, they have deprived the world of ‘a rich source of information about transcultural aesthetic expressions’ (Phillips 1998, 10).

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